There has been a lot of noise around ‘The Rook’ by Daniel O’Malley, and it has sat on my shelf for a little too long before I finally got around to reading it. Award-noise from the Sword and Laser podcast finally pushed me over the edge, and I pulled it from its place on the shelf and ploughed through it in about two days. It takes an ambitious writer to place his protagonist in a situation where they are entirely reliant upon info-dumps, and then be able to pull it off in a way that is at once interesting and not tedious.
To suggest that this book is not reliant upon info-dumps would be preposterous, but the point is that it doesn’t matter. The info-dumps are done in such a way as you never really care that the story has taken a back-seat for a moment. In fact, the info-dumps are often little narratives all of their own, and though you could make a case against O’Malley’s flippant adherence to one point of view, the story is not affected by any writing-style choices made on the author’s part.
Enter a world full of creepy-crawlies, magic monsters, and political machinations happening right under everyone’s noses. Our setting is a secret agency running alongside the rest of modern-day England, but completely hidden from the rest of the world. Our protagonist is an amnesiac who has to quickly work out who is trying to kill her, why, how, as well as continue doing one of the most important jobs in the country, a job she has no clue yet how to do.
The setup is fantastic, and it plays out wonderfully. I’m a little confused as to why – with a complete persona wiped – our protagonist seemed to magically build a new one somewhat overnight, but it is a minor criticism swept away underneath the amazing imagination of the author.
The world of The Rook is at once fascinating and horrifying; its characters magnetic and charming, evil and repulsive. There are no stereotypes here, just a lot of well-formed characters playing out the world of hidden political power and save-the-world-warfare.
While I was reading I took a few moments to wonder how O’Malley would finish the book – standalone or set it up for a sequel. The reality is, however, that a book such as this is always going to be open for sequels, O’Malley just made sure of it. I look forward to being able to read more of O’Malley’s work – be it in the same world as The Rook or somewhere else, it won’t matter. Either way, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read it, make sure you pick yourself up a copy of The Rook as soon as humanly possible (or, if you are that way inclined, inhumanly possible).
Joshua S Hill, 8/10
The body you are wearing used to be mine." So begins the letter Myfanwy Thomas is holding when she awakes in a London park surrounded by bodies all wearing latex gloves. With no recollection of who she is, Myfanwy must follow the instructions her former self left behind to discover her identity and track down the agents who want to destroy her.
She soon learns that she is a Rook, a high-ranking member of a secret organization called the Chequy that battles the many supernatural forces at work in Britain. She also discovers that she possesses a rare, potentially deadly supernatural ability of her own.
The Rook is Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel, first published by Little Brown & Co in the US in 2012. It was one of the flagship books for on the rise UK publisher Head of Zeus, the team that brought us The Grim Company by Luke Scull. There are two things that you can associate with a Rook, and in this book it refers to the chess piece. The series is called The Chequy Files, but then what is the significance to chess? Don’t worry I’ll get to it later.
It is always a challenge for an author to produce that one catchy opening sentence to start of your book. Daniel O’Malley used one that is, in my opinion, of the betters it starts off with a letter and goes:
“Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine”
Awesome, don’t you think? The essence of this book is the supernatural, and reminds me of the TV series Heroes and the X-Files. This was a bit of a surprise for me because I wasn’t expecting this to happen. The Rook follows Myfanwy (with a silent w) Thomas, but from the very first sentence we are never really sure if it’s Myfanwy we are really following. The Myfanwy we are introduced to is an important operative, a Rook, for a secret organization called the Chequy who deal with supernatural in Britain and across the sea. Myfanwy has amnesia, but thankfully the former Myfanwy has left behind a set of instructions for the new Myfanwy in order to get to the bottom of the mystery. Not only is the new Myfanwy trying to get on her new life, she is also being tasked by the Chequy with delicate cases whilst receiving letters that say someone is planning to kill her. Quite a lot to take in on your first day in a new body, isn’t it?
A great aspect of The Rook is the rich storyline. There are diverse set of creative and unique characters within the Chequy organization. Myfanwy is the primary viewpoint character, but with her there are a great many others like the other Rook, Gestalt (he is definitely one of my favourite characters). The Chequy organization is made up like chessboard, with the higher ranking members represented by pieces such as the King, Queen, Bishops, and Chevaliers. There are a lot more people with special powers. There was also a great time invested in showing the inner workings of Chequy, how it is hieratically arranged, who does what, how they acquire new recruits and how they train them. And if you would have thought that the Chequy is a one of a kind of organization, think again. There is one in America as well called the Croatian who operate in the same way.
What would the Chequy organization be without the threat? There are supernatural infestations throughout Britain that often require Chequy attention. There is also an old threat (The Grafters) resurfacing from continental Europe (from Belgium to be precise). Being from The Netherlands, I was quite struck with all the Dutch words used to define this threat, like De Broederschap. I was laughing quite a bit - I think it is one of the first fantasy books where I have encountered these words.
The pacing of this book is great, especially the beginning where it really urged me to read on and find out more about the former and current Myfanwy. And just when I thought it was time for a break, I was thrown even deeper into the story with just one question answered many new questions asked. Noticeable to me was a small change in writing and pacing in the middle of the book. It changes to an all business style where the emphasis of the story is more on The Grafter threat in Britain rather than who Myfanwy is and who is trying to kill her. This transition was a bit sudden for me, but in the end it did not affect the story overall (the ending is a total curveball where everything falls into place).
The Rook is definitely recommended. As far as debuts go, this is an amazingly rich and well though-out story. Having an amnesiac as the main protagonist who has to rediscover herself from scratch was an excellent idea. Additionally, there is the weird and wonderful set of characters from both from the Chequy and the Grafters that make this story even richer. The Rook brings a new and refreshing story to urban fantasy.
Jasper de Joode, 9/10
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